Arthur C. Danto

by Michael Kelly

Arthur C. Danto. Photo by Annie Hall, 1994. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

There are few philosophers today who engage the art world in the way Arthur C. Danto does. He not only writes about art philosophically and critically, but his philosophy, both in eloquent style and provocative content, has taken shape as a result of an intimate dialogue with contemporary art, beginning with his “Artworld” essay in 1964. He has done this as Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy (now Emeritus) at Columbia University, and as art critic for The Nation (since 1984). His contributions to our understanding of contemporary art range from writings on the philosophy of art such as The Transfiguration of the Commonplace and After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History to art reviews and catalog essays. The particular occasion for this interview, held in mid-March in his apartment on Riverside Drive, is the upcoming publication of essays, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The book contains essays on artists as diverse as John Heartfield, James Coleman, Vermeer, Nan Goldin, Bruce Nauman, Sofanisba Anguissola, Jackson Pollock, and Shirin Neshat, as well as a key essay, “Art and Meaning,” in which" Danto discusses the relationship between his philosophy and criticism, a topic explored in the following interview as well. This collection of Danto’s work, like all those before it—Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective; Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present and Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays—is further confirmation of Danto’s status as a generous and challenging philosopher and critic of contemporary art.

Michael Kelly With the title of your new book, The Madonna of the Future, are you picking up on Warhol’s obsession with cultural icons, since he’s one of your favorite artists?

Arthur Danto No. The title comes from a story that Henry James wrote about a man living in Florence in 1870 who wants to carry on from where Raphael left off. He sings his model’s praises to the narrator, who finds, upon meeting her, that she’s gotten quite coarse over time. He says to the artist, “Theobald, it’s too late.” And Theobald says, "It doesn’t matter, the painting is in my head." But when he sits down to paint it, he can’t. You get a white, blank canvas.

MK But he’s not satisfied with that.

AD He couldn’t be in 1870, and that’s part of the point. I manufacture a fictional character, a curator of the Museum of Monochromy in Cincinnati who goes back in time to visit poor Theobald like a ghost from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. He brings slides of paintings by Rauschenberg, Rodchenko, Ryman and says, "You belong in my museum, you were ahead of your time!" The poor artist thinks the curator is out of his mind. He’s not interested in that future. And so it brings out issues of what I call the historical future, the historical past, and what it means for two artists to belong to the same history, what it is for them to belong to different histories, and so forth.

MK Many of the artists in this imaginary museum that you describe are ones you have covered in The Madonna of the Future, so the book is almost a catalog for the museum.

AD (laughter) Yeah, that’s right.

MK Your editor, Paul Elie, suggested that title, because, in your own words, you “often attempt to see the future by looking back on the present, as if it were past."

AD I find that a very valuable exercise in getting at what a work of art can mean. The same object will mean different things at different times, and often cannot have meant at one time what it is taken to mean at another.

MK You say in the preface that there are three duties of a practicing critic. The first is to make sure the essays serve as documentation of the period during which they were written. The second, to write in such a way that the essays can be read for themselves, not just in connection with the work about which you’re writing. And the third is to be critical of the work you’re writing about. The first is something you carry out extremely well, but there’s an interesting twist here, because you don’t just document the period. In a sense, you’re also defining it. So there’s a possible tension between your philosophical task to define and your art critical task to document, but it’s generative.

AD I was thinking about just those kinds of points yesterday, because I sometimes don’t notice something or misdescribe what I’ve seen. It usually doesn’t matter terribly much in that somebody could write a letter and correct me, but sometimes I anchor interpretations to it.

MK You almost have to, given the role of the notion of embodiment in your definition of art, which calls for a certain kind of detail.

AD You have to. Just yesterday I was out at PS1, where they had installed Shirin Neshat’s Rapture. It’s got two video projections. And I’d seen it five or six times before I wrote a quite successful essay on it, one that actually correlated with an increase in the number of people who went in to see it. But yesterday I noticed that when the women go into the water, there’s a little outboard motor on the back of the boat; I had never noticed it before. And of course, realistically, you’d want some way of getting over the waves. But I had had this idea that they were abandoning themselves to a higher will. It was a very pretty interpretation, and I must say nobody said, “There was a motor, you jerk.” But things like that, where you can’t remember, you didn’t look—that’s a real problem, just remembering the sequence of episodes. It’s not easy.

MK The second task of the critic, you say, is for the writing to be able to stand on its own, to have a literary style, which it does.

AD That’s what I want.

MK The third task is typically a more negative sense of criticism. And you say that, with a few exceptions—meaning Bruce Nauman, Lucian Freud, and Richard Avedon—you don’t want to be critical in that sense. When you are negative, it’s because you find a certain artist’s work violates what you feel is the respect due human subjects or else you feel the artist’s will too much. Perhaps we can come back to that issue, but first I want to discuss your writing style, which connects with some substantive issues as well. Your writing is very clear, but also a little deceiving because of its complexity. Let me read a statement from your preface. "In general, what I undertake to do in these reviews is to describe what the work of art is about, what it means, and how this meaning is embodied in the work." I imagine a typical reader saying, "Why can’t all philosophers speak like this? Why do they so often use such complicated language, making the art they discuss even more obscure than it might have been to begin with?" However, your statement of purpose is not simple at all, for it embodies—and here’s the deceiving part—your essentialist definition of art: that a work of art is about something, has meaning, and that its meaning is embodied in it. But now I’m imagining that the same reader is, by contrast, not so receptive to your essentialist definition, given the anti- or at least nonessentialist intellectual climate of today. Does that contrast strike you in the same way?

AD If you know a lot of philosophy, you’ll see a lot of philosophy. But if you don’t know any philosophy, you won’t be conscious of the fact that you’re not seeing it. The philosophy is what really carries it along. I don’t think the mode of thought’s very different from the philosophical writing I’ve done. I grew up in analytical philosophy, I grew up as somebody who held stylistic ideals that were enjoined by that movement. I held them in very high esteem and sought to conform to them.

MK That I can appreciate, in terms of the effect it has had on your writing, but in your After the End of Art, you talk about the relationship between art criticism and the philosophy of art, and you’re critical of Clement Greenberg because his art criticism was anchored in an essentialist philosophy of art. And you argue that art criticism today needs to be separated more from the philosophy of art.

AD Well, sure it does.

MK Then the question is whether that’s true of your own art criticism.

AD The truth of the matter is the philosophy doesn’t help the way Greenberg thought it did. The tradition was that most people deduced from their philosophy of art certain stylistic comparatives which they felt were either right on essentialist grounds or right on historicist grounds: that this is the way art should be, this is the way it’s going, and so forth. But the philosophy of art that I’ve worked out is compatible with everything and entails no stylistic injunction.

MK Yours is a philosophy of art that is essentialist without being tied to any particular style. So the essentialism, which was feeding the link between the philosophy of art and art criticism in Greenberg, is still there.

AD That’s true.

MK You talk about interpreting any particular work of art in relation to what was possible for art at that time, which means looking at art contextually, in relation to other works of art, as well as to our discourse. But if one were then to combine your essentialist philosophy of art with such contextualist, nonessentialist criticism, a certain discord emerges, no?

AD Well, yes and no. The definition is as it were, external to history. But what can be a work of art and what cannot is very closely tied to given historical moments.

MK Look at your philosophy of art over the last 40 years in connection with the history of aesthetics in that same period.

AD 40 years. (laughter) Let’s let that go.

MK Close to 40. Early in this period, in the 1950s and into the 1960s, people thought that you couldn’t have an aesthetic theory unless you could define art, and that, for various reasons, you couldn’t define it. So you couldn’t really do much with aesthetics. You came along and found a way of saving appearances—of a definition of art—precisely by getting away from the idea of art understood as appearance.

AD Well, that’s half-true. I had the enormous good luck of being on the scene in 1964 when I published that first paper, "The Artworld." I was very excited by Warhol obviously, by Morris, Lichtenstein, and Oldenburg. Those were my heroes at that moment. I couldn’t have developed the philosophy if that hadn’t happened in the art world. No one would’ve imagined those kinds of possibilities coming up; those examples gave me a tremendous boost philosophically.

MK Yours is a powerful model for doing aesthetics because of its responsiveness to what was happening. So the half that wasn’t true of what I said a minute ago was the half I left out. For the issue here is not just the relation between your philosophy of art and what was going on in aesthetics, but, at the same time, the relation between your philosophy and what was going on in the art world itself.

AD Exactly.

MK Of course, then the question is: While it’s true that you couldn’t have the philosophy of art you have without what happened in the art world at that time, is there another philosophy of art one could have in reaction to the very same art events? For example, Warhol, Johns, and others blurred the distinction between art and reality. Your response to that blurring, which seemed to suggest that art could not be distinguished from reality and thus could not be defined, was to introduce an essentialist definition of art that reestablishes the art/reality distinction. Such a response is in sharp contrast to what the artists could be interpreted as doing, for they were saying, “Let the distinction be blurred.” So my question is: Why is it necessary to sharpen what artists have persistently blurred, or make a boundary when it’s the case that artists are always going to cross over it?

AD Because the distinction is not blurred, even if historical examples make it look as if it is, as happened in about 1957, discounting the case of Duchamp, whom I’m never quite clear about. In any case, you want to make sure that if you’ve got a definition of art, it’s immunized against that kind of thing where the artist can say, “Well, screw you,” and put in something that the definition isn’t able to account for. It’s got to transcend all possible counterexamples.

MK If you are determined to have a definition, especially an essentialist one, I can understand why you would have to indemnify it against any future counterexample, but my point is that there’s another plausible response here, which is to ask that, given the developments in art, need we have a definition of art at all?

AD Well, philosophers have argued about the logic of definition from the beginning of philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle. What knocked me out at the time was how many beds were appearing in art—Artschwager, Oldenburg—against a famous example where Plato draws the distinction between a picture of a bed and a bed. I said, “These are real beds,” they seem to have closed some kind of a gap, they’re catching up on the world. Having a philosophical background enabled me to give a certain formulation to it.

MK In discussing the development of modernism, you say that there’s a series of essentialisms, particularly in painting, which culminates in Warhol’s Brillo Box. But couldn’t that history be read rather as a series of forms of resistance to essentialism?

AD I don’t think that the dialogue had that form. It’s not anti-essentialist; it’s a conflict over what the essence is. Those are competing philosophies of art. I don’t see it as a resistance. I think that the structure of modernism and theory go together. I thought that it was more like the structure of science where you have a theory, and then you say, "What about this?" You’ve got either to explain it away, or to revise the theory to account for the query. I didn’t try to nail that down in After the End of Art, but I think of Kornweiller and Frye and Greenberg as people who were like scientists practically, working out a philosophy of some kind, a definition of some kind. I don’t know whether it helps a layman to have a definition. But there is such a propensity, particularly in modernism and certainly in postmodernism, to say things like, Well, that’s not art; Well, why not? And before you know it, you’re arguing over a definition of some kind or other.

MK Except the definition need not be essentialist. Even in the analogy you draw with science, if I develop a theory of something like causation, I have to account for all the examples, even the counterfactual ones, but I don’t necessarily have to do that in essentialist terms.

AD That by itself is certainly a philosophical problem. It has been since Quine’s paper on the analytic/synthetic distinction as untenable. Because all of it does depend on some notion of analyticity. But that’s the form it always seems to take because when you say it doesn’t have to be essentialistic, you haven’t found the example that proves otherwise.

MK In the essay “Art and Meaning” you respond to two challenges to your definition of art. The first is that there are artworks that are not about something, so they defy the first condition of your definition. But then you say that the counterexample on which this objection is based—nonobjective painting—is not really a problem for you, because those paintings may be about nothing, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t about anything.

AD Yeah. You can’t just say that because it’s a white square it’s about nothing.

MK The other challenge is that it’s possible for something to be about something and embody its meaning—and thus satisfy both criteria of your definition—but still not be a work of art. The example you discuss is Steve Harvey’s commercial design of Brillo boxes, the very ones Warhol appropriated. Your response is to introduce a distinction between two different senses of content: one is the way in which an ordinary carton physically contains Brillo pads, and the second is the way in which a work of art has content which is in no sense physical, but which is embodied in it. This distinction puts the burden on your notion of embodiment.

AD It does in a way. I was moving in that direction before I got that criticism, but I took it as an opportunity to think it through; and I realized that I was snobbish in thinking that there was a distinction between art and reality, when I used as my example of reality commercial shipping cartons. I ought to have recognized that commercial art was art, too. What’s nice about my definition as it is, is that it’s perfectly capable of dealing with commercial art. There was something celebratory about the design of the package, a highly rhetorical design, and I’ve always felt that there was a real connection between art and rhetoric. But it then made it vivid that, in whatever way the Brillo box as designed by Harvey was celebrating Brillo as a product, Warhol’s box was not celebrating Brillo.

MK It wasn’t about Brillo, specifically.

AD That’s right.

MK To come back to the definition issue, there seems to be a shift under way here, but I’m not sure about its significance. Earlier in your work, you contrasted a work of art with something that was an object in the real world and which in many ways resembled the work of art, but which was not one. So there needed to be a definition to distinguish the real object from the work. The anchor in that project was the assumption that the real object was noncontroversial, that we knew what it was. But now you concede that the identity of the real object is no longer self-evident. This concession leads to the shift from a distinction between works of art and ordinary things to the distinction between one work and another. Your own example is—again—between a fine and a commercial work of art. But what does this mean for the definition? What’s happened to reality?

AD Well, that’s the interesting question. Not what happened to art, but what happened to our conception of reality. It’s almost impossible to give an example of something that doesn’t have a meaning, at least in so far as it’s related to human life.

MK You say that such an example would be like finding something that did not derive some part of its identity from a network of meanings.

AD That’s right. And these days in philosophy there are all these arguments pro and con that everything is related to everything else, I mean some doctrine of internal relationships. What you’ve got to do, I suppose, is work out two different holisms. The kind of holism that belongs to what you think of as art, which includes cathedrals and soap cartons and The Night Watch, and screwdrivers and such, with a lot of feedback back and forth. But reality is defined, not by the objects, but by the relationships among the objects. So a package of Brillo is defined by the size of the Brillo pads that it has to contain, how much protection does a Brillo pad require, etc.? All those kinds of things don’t arise so interestingly for a Brillo box as an artwork. Then you find people trying to get those same kinds of holisms going about artworks, which I’m not so interested in. But I think Brillo Box goes with the other things Warhol was doing, and you might find that the real affinities are not with objects that have the same shape, but maybe with the portraits. Of course, Warhol was a great portraitist.

MK So you would compare Brillo Box with his portraits of Marilyn, for example.

AD Exactly so.

MK So it’s a portrait of a Brillo box.

AD It’s a portrait of a Brillo box. (laughter)

MK But if a particular philosophical issue—the blurring of the art/reality distinction, when art blends into reality, in effect—led you to a definition of art, what happens to your definition when we no longer contrast a work of art with a real thing? What happens when you shift from the art/reality paradigm to what seems to be an intra-art paradigm, since we’re now talking about Warhol’s Brillo Box as a portrait which is comparable to his other portraits, and, in doing so, we’re no longer assuming that we know anything about the real Brillo box separate from Warhol? In other words, when I’m comparing one portrait with another portrait, what’s the definition doing for me?

AD When you begin to do that, you’ve left the definition behind and you’re dealing with a critical question, the question of the definition of a portrait. I wasn’t trying to define that. I took the preanalytical idea that we, in a general way, know what portraits are.

MK But if we’ve now shifted to an intra-art discussion, can I operate without a definition? Do I need a definition, an essentialist definition?

AD No, you don’t. Essentialism is a philosophical position, and I don’t think you need to know that philosophical position to read the essays, as people have done from the beginning of this series. What they might do, if they’ve got that kind of mind, would be to infer from the great catholicity of things that I talk about and say, "Jesus, this guy doesn’t seem to have a definition of art?" And that would be about the smartest thing they could say because they’ve got a different view of what a definition of art should be than I have. I want a definition of art to be compatible with everything, and that’s why I seized on the opportunity to claim for my philosophy commercial art.

MK Isn’t not having a definition of art compatible with all art?

AD Yes. But you’re going to get into trouble sooner or later because pretty soon you’re going to be saying, "Yeah, that’s one, that’s one, that’s one, that’s one." It’s not realty illuminating. But I think that the philosophy comes through in trying to rise to those kinds of questions when and only when they come up. At what point do we have to ascend to those philosophical questions?

MK Yes, but the issue here is still, Which philosophy is one going to ascend to? As a way of pursuing this issue further, if only indirectly, I want to talk a bit about aesthetics. There’s a certain anti-aesthetic attitude that pervades your writing, because you claim that what constitutes art as such is meaning and that’s not something that the eye can behold; it’s not a perceptual property of the work of art. So you seem to use aesthetic and perceptual synonymously. But this attitude is shared, as you know, by some contemporary art theorists. Their anti-aesthetic has a different origin and a different purpose, but a reader can pick up on this attitude and not necessarily make that distinction. In addition, it seems to me that the anti-aesthetic attitude, yours and the other, is to some extent at odds with the current art world. Although it’s clear that contemporary art is highly conceptual, it is also deeply concerned with the aesthetic dimension, that is, with materials, with the senses, the body, and with perception—all of which are tied to aesthetics in the literal and historical sense of that word. So it seems to me that there needs to be some clarity here about aesthetics.

AD I don’t think of myself as anti-aesthetic in any sense like Rosalind Krauss is anti-aesthetic, or Hal Foster, who did The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. But I thought that aesthetics didn’t belong to the essence of art, and it was important to shelve it while I was working out questions about definition, ontology, and, in particular, the logic of the history of art. But I’m moving back into aesthetics. I figure that I have some hold on the other issues. You know, there are always going to be difficulties, but my views on those hold together. And now my real project is to go back and reconnect: Where does aesthetics fit? That’s why I’ve been writing so much on beauty. And the way I work at it is that beauty is to be understood in terms of meaning. What does it mean that a work is beautiful? You can’t argue anybody into seeing it as beautiful. So when it is beautiful, that has to mean something. And I tried to develop this distinction which I call an internal theory of beauty. Not the inner beauty, but its internal relation to the meaning of the work, so that if you miss the beauty, you miss the work. And in other cases, where you think you see beauty, you miss the work because there is a reason for it not to be beautiful. And I think I can go a long way with that.

MK And as you say in “Art and Meaning,” contemporary art replaces beauty with meaning. So now your strategy is to account for beauty . . .

AD As a modality of meaning, yes.

MK I’d argue that aesthetics is inseparable from art even on an ontological level, and that aesthetics need not entail a return to beauty. But let me ask about the relationship between philosophy and art since your philosophy is so attuned to art, not just because you happen to write about it, but because it seems at times to be inspired by art. You even talk about a work of art at times as being a piece of thought, or as a piece of disguised philosophy. Yet in your essay on Robert Morris, which is one of the more critical ones, you say that an artwork can take us only a certain distance in addressing a philosophical problem, such as mind/body, which requires argument, reason, and the like. And in discussing the video artist Gary Hill, you say there is a great deal of philosophy in his work without this guaranteeing that the work itself attains a philosophical level.

AD Yes.

MK Those two essays seem to drive a wedge between art and philosophy, while in other essays you bring them together. Is this because you’re simply not convinced by the treatment philosophical issues receive in the work of Morris and Hill?

AD No: it’s because you need words to do philosophy. I’d seen that show of Gary Hill’s where he has a child reading from Wittgenstein on color. There’s plenty of philosophy in the work, but what’s that mean as far as the philosophical questions of the work itself are concerned? Hill is gripped by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. But I never thought his work was as philosophical as Bill Viola’s, which seems to raise old, deep, important philosophical questions about the meaning of life. And Viola does it in a way that would be very difficult for a philosopher to do, because he gets to use images so compellingly. But what makes it philosophy requires that we have the language that we need.

MK And that’s the other side of the question, then. On one side are the artists who touch on philosophical issues but run into certain limitations. On the other are the artists, such as Viola or Johns, whose work, you say, does reach a certain philosophical level, where they even seem to do something that philosophers cannot do.

AD Hegel had those ideas. He says that art in certain cultures raised all the questions that philosophy would’ve raised if it had existed in those cultures. I think that’s true.

MK With that in mind, let me go back to the issues I’ve been addressing about the sense in which the philosophy of art that one might develop in response to contemporary art might be different from yours because of the philosophy that the art itself is developing. In your own discussion of Jasper Johns, you say that he invalidated part of the aesthetic of the most esteemed members of the advanced culture of the time. He was not just being critical, but was also developing a different aesthetic, even a different philosophy of art. This example, and others you yourself discuss, raise the question about how far one might have to make concessions in one’s philosophy of art if one is attentive to art’s own philosophical lessons.

AD It’ll take you very far in many directions, but the one that you can’t do as much for is the philosophical problem of art itself. That’s where you need some structure of argumentation. When you read the aesthetics of the 19th century, you see that people had no clue that something like the Brillo Box was a possibility. Nobody would’ve looked at it. That’s the Madonna of the Future phenomenon. They couldn’t see how that could be a work of art. And so art really kept driving toward that point where it was something that couldn’t be missed, couldn’t be overlooked, couldn’t be argued away. Then the question is: where do you go from there?

MK Well, the Whitney Biennial is opening up next week, perhaps we’ll see . . .

AD And the “Greater New York” show at PS1 is a great show to get a sense of the range, quality, and interest of things that are being done by artists in the city. They had 2000 submissions for that show and selected 140. I don’t think I knew more than ten—and I go around and look at things—most people would know fewer. And they don’t know one another for the most part. That’s a situation where you can’t identify a center, you can’t identify a structure. Which is agreeable enough I suppose, being a pluralist, and feeling that there is no direction.

MK In your discussion of the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum last fall, you say that the British artists seem less demoralized than their American counterparts, in part because the Brits don’t suffer from the funding deficit that artists here face, but also because they seem to work under the illusion that making progress, that doing something fundamental, is a direction. I take it that the illusion here is relative to the pluralism in art you espouse, according to which the history of art has no direction anymore. How is it, briefly, that you can be a pluralist in art, as well as in criticism, yet insist that you have no use for pluralism in philosophy, where you remain an essentialist?

AD Philosophy in its nature is either true or false. That’s not the case with art. Pluralism in philosophy consists in treating it as if philosophy were art—one admires the logical architecture, the vision, or whatever. There is that. But in philosophy one aims at truth.

MK We’d do well to end with that provocative comment.


Michael Kelly teaches aesthetics and recent European philosophy at Columbia University and is managing editor of Columbia University's Journal of Philosophy. He is the editor-in-cheif of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford 1998), and is currently finishing a book on iconoclasm in philosophical aesthetics.

Art history
Critical theory
Summer 2000
The cover of BOMB 72